The transportation sector is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gases, making up 27% of total GHG emissions in the U.S., according to the EPA. As the industry looks toward greener solutions, two directions have emerged.


Many are looking to battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) to reduce fleet emissions. However, there’s another strong entry in the zero-emissions category: fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs), powered by hydrogen.


We previously took a look at the rise of electric semis. In this article, we’ll take a look at hydrogen-powered medium- and heavy-duty trucks—as well as their advantages and drawbacks—as this technology continues to develop.


Advances in Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles

Hydrogen fuel cell medium- and heavy-duty vehicles offer some exciting possibilities in the area of zero-emissions fleets—and they’re already in use in many parts of the world.


Public transportation systems in London, China, and Hong Kong (among others) have introduced hydrogen fuel cell buses into their fleets, along with battery-electric buses. Hong Kong, in particular, with its steep hills and warm climate, can get better range from hydrogen-powered buses, as opposed to battery-electric ones. In the U.S., California leads the way with more than 50 hydrogen fuel cell buses.

The initial benefit of transitioning to hydrogen fuel cell vehicles is clear—an immediate drop in emissions. However, when it comes to medium- to heavy-duty vehicles that may need to haul heavy loads over long distances, choosing hydrogen fuel cell-powered vehicles comes with its own distinct set of advantages and disadvantages. 

How Do Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles Work?

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles work a little differently than diesel-powered ones. In a diesel-powered vehicle, the internal combustion engine burns the diesel fuel to power the engine. This process releases several different kinds of emissions, including carbon dioxide and pollutants like nitrogen oxides (NOx) and particulate matter (PM).


In contrast, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles generate electricity using a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen. That electricity powers the motor. The only byproducts are water and heat.

illustration of hydrogen energy

The Advantages of Hydrogen Fuel Cell Trucks

Medium to heavy-duty hydrogen fuel cell trucks offer a number of key advantages, including:


The Challenges Around Hydrogen Fuel Cell Trucks

On the flip side, there are still a few challenges surrounding medium- and heavy-duty hydrogen fuel cell trucks, including:

Who’s Already Using Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles? 

Despite Montpellier’s reluctance to go all-in on hydrogen buses, a number of companies are moving forward with pilots of medium- to heavy-duty hydrogen fuel cell vehicle prototypes, including: 

Toyota Motor North America & Kenworth Truck Company

Image courtesy of Toyota

The Port of Los Angeles recently hosted a pilot involving ten Kenworth Class 8 trucks, powered by Toyota’s fuel cell electric system. During the pilot—supported by a grant from the California Air Resources Board’s Zero- and Near-Zero Emissions Freight Facilities (ZANZEFF) program—the vehicles ran a drayage route between a rail yard, a warehouse, and terminals at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, going for a total of 3,600 miles.

cellcentric: Daimler Truck AG & Volvo Group

Image courtesy of Volvo Group

In 2021, Daimler Truck AG and Volvo Group came together to form cellcentric, a 50/50 joint venture dedicated to accelerating the use of hydrogen-based fuel cells for long-haul trucks and beyond. With an eye toward climate-neutral transportation by 2050, cellcentric is targeting customer tests of their hydrogen fuel cell trucks in 2024.


Image courtesy of Cummins

Cummins has made a considerable commitment to sustainability, pledging to get the company to carbon neutrality by 2050. As it builds its road map toward zero emissions, the company has invested in both battery-electric and hydrogen fuel cell technologies. In September 2022, Cummins announced partnerships with Scania in Europe and Daimler Trucks North America to integrate their fourth-generation hydrogen fuel cell engine into their vehicles for testing and demos.

Hyundai Motor Company

Image courtesy of Hyundai Motor Company 

The South Coast Air Basin experiences some of the highest air pollution levels in the U.S. Enter Hyundai Motors, who received a grant from the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) to demo two Class 8 heavy-duty trucks in the area, powered by their XCIENT Fuel Cell technology.

Through a public-private partnership, Hyundai will also deploy 30 Class 8 XCIENT Fuel Cell trucks in Northern California by Q2 of 2023—the largest commercial deployment of Class 8 hydrogen-powered fuel cell trucks in the U.S. so far.

Tevva Motors

Image courtesy of  Tevva

Finally, some companies are taking a dual-energy approach, like the British company Tevva Truck. Their third-generation battery electric truck is being offered with a hydrogen fuel cell range extender, leveraging the best of both technologies to enable trucks to haul heavy loads over longer distances.

The Path to Zero Emissions

All of these efforts toward zero emissions medium- and heavy-duty trucks will likely be accelerated by legislation, like the recent regulations we’ve seen in California to improve air quality. Additionally, 17 U.S. states have signed a memorandum of understanding to promote the use of medium and heavy-duty zero-emissions vehicles. In other words, as technology continues to advance and legislation emerges to promote zero-emissions vehicles, the transportation industry stands poised to make significant changes to their fleets—and significant positive environmental impact—over the next few decades.


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